The Art of the Business – Part I

For a downloadable or streaming audio podcast of this article, click here.

As actors, we spend a great deal of our time training to become masters of our art. We go to theatre school, we read all the books on acting, we train with coaches, and we apprentice. At some point a lot of us decide, often out of frustration, to produce our own work. So we pick a project, put up the show, and then are incredibly disappointed when a mere 20 people (or less) show up every night. You lose money, you lose self esteem, you lose your moxy. You get pissed off—you wonder who is out there supporting theatre, where are your friends, where did all the people go whose shows you have been supporting all these years?

In April, 2001, I had that exact experience for the first time. In February, 2006, I produced my third show. Five Women Wearing the Same Dress did 88% at the box office and turned a profit.

What made the difference? Marketing.

Theatre schools teach us the best acting techniques, but they severely lack in teaching us the business. This column, which will be written on a monthly basis, is focused on that—the business of being an artist. I will offer you tips and tricks from my own experience as a publicist for the past six years. Because quite honestly, nothing makes me happier than going to the theatre and seeing a house full of people I don’t know. It’s the best.

Why are we so resistant to putting time into the business of our work? Well, first of all it’s not sexy. Wouldn’t you much rather be using your time creatively? Sure, of course. You can create all day, but if no one sees it (or ideally, buys it), what’s the point? Secondly, plain old ordinary ignorance. What are the best ways to market yourself? How do you do it? Many artists feel overwhelmed by these questions. And you may not want to hear this, but sometimes you just gotta do it—set aside the time and make yourself sit down and do it. It may not be sexy or creative, but it is so very important.

Where do you begin? Start by asking yourself this question: what is it that makes you (or your company, or your theatre project) unique? On any given night in Vancouver, there is a myriad of choices, and you are not just competing with other theatre offerings. Films, restaurants, live music venues are all competing for your dollar. So why would someone want to come and see your show? It may be a unique staging, a script that hasn’t been produced here before, a rising star, or a hot topic. But you need something that makes you stand out. You will use this “uniqueness” as the basis of all your marketing.

Are you still stumped? No idea what makes you or your company unique? Then the place to start is with market research. This involves putting together a survey and getting it out to at least your family and friends and, ideally, complete strangers. My friend Bart Anderson, who teaches at VFS, has a survey he gives all of his acting students. It includes questions that help to pinpoint what people see you as (age, race, occupation, etc) and what they don’t. (If you want a copy of it, just email me)

If you are lucky enough to be doing a show in the near future include an online link to a survey (you can use sites like Survey Monkey for free) or a hard copy of your survey in the program. Offer to put their name into a draw for a prize if they answer your survey. You can find out tons of information this way, about what makes you unique, what your audience is like, and how to reach them. For more information on how to create surveys for theatre read this article on the Mission Paradox blog.

Until next time….


  1. Great stuff! This is really important. One thing I might suggest: if you can’t think of what makes your theatre unique…then maybe you’d better consider whether you should go through with the project. There are too many theatres out there who have no reason to be except that their members want to do shows. Read some books by important theatre people — Harold Clurman, Robert Lepage, Peter Brook, Anne Bogart — to get some juices going. Ask yourself: if my theatre/production didn’t exist, what would the world miss? If you can’t think of anything, then don’t waste your time!

  2. Or to put it another way, if I may Scott, who is it that you’re doing the project for, yourself or your audience? Will your community recognize and respond to your work? Will it provoke discussion and debate? Art cannot thrive in a vacuum, we must be prepared to answer the question “why should I spend money to see your play?”

  3. I agree with both of you wholeheartedly. But I also *know* that there are companies in this town (who shall go unnamed) who are financially successful with shows that are not provocative. Entertaining, yes. Thought-provoking? Not so much.
    Where’s the fine balance between financial success, entertainment, and provocation? It’s my hope that it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

  4. Great column Rebecca. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise on this subject.

    I went to a recent theatre festival here in Toronto (in January!) and was blown away to see sold out houses all around, full – as you say – of people I didn’t know. What a great feeling.

    As far as marketing is concerned, my hope is that it will increasingly be seen as part of the creative process.

    There are a ton of advertising creatives out there who are just itching to work on exciting pro-bono clients such as independent theatre companies. Most of them just don’t have the connections into that world. These are writers and art directors and strategic thinkers many of whom went to art and/or design schools. I think there’s a gold mine there, just waiting to be tapped.

    Anyway, thanks for these resources. I’ll email you for the survey. Thanks!

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